Alum returns to talk about leadership and nonprofit endeavors
Sam Vaghar ’08 visited campus last Tuesday to share his story of being an agent of social change and youth leadership in the fight against poverty, work that has taken him to the White House, the United Nations and, most recently, the Vatican.
Vaghar related some of his experiences after founding the Millennium Campus Network, a Boston-based nonprofit, in his dorm room at the University. His work recently brought him to an international youth symposium at the Vatican on Oct. 15.
Vaghar said two books he read in college, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” and “The End of Poverty,” were the impetus for founding MCN. “Reading these books,” he said, “helped me realize that the world is so much bigger than Brandeis, that Brandeis is one piece of a global community and that we have an opportunity to connect those dots.”
After his initial success in organizing students at Brandeis, Vaghar’s initiative grew exponentially from a handful of friends to 5,500 college students across 30 countries. Today, MCN organizes student-led fellowships, campaigns and an annual conference bringing together students and speakers from around the globe. This year’s ninth annual conference will take place in Rabat, Morocco, from Nov. 16 to Nov. 19.
According to Vaghar, the key to his success lies in direct engagement and interaction between activists. “Our whole model is predicated on the belief that students have agency,” he said. “It’s not about directing.” By emphasizing cooperation and constructive dialogue among social change organizations while preserving their individual autonomy, his approach transcends partisan politics, Vaghar said.
Drawing on the example of Nelson Mandela’s protest against South Africa’s Apartheid regime, Vaghar said he believes in the potential of realizing impactful change in society through this spirit of mutual respect and open engagement. “We may not have the same label … but does that really mean we don’t share a community and solve problems together?” he asked. “I think we can.” He encourages students to form their own relationships and work together to focus on the issues that matter most to them.
One goal of MCN is to help students turn their ambitions into reality. Vaghar hopes that his organization, taking advantage of the interconnectedness of social media and the internet, will be able to provide aspiring social entrepreneurs like himself with the resources to launch their own campaigns and get more people involved.
Through this outreach, Vaghar intends for students to have the resources and opportunities to address both specific societal inequalities and their underlying causes. “What we really try to help students do is not just treat symptoms, but understand systems,” he said.
“Even if we had 20,000 students … [by] treating a symptom we will never actually shift society in the way it needs to shift … So I think that’s the opportunity — to help students actually understand systems,” he explained.
Vaghar credits Brandeis with helping him understand the importance of addressing social disparity. “This is an institution rooted in social justice … Brandeis taught me that the world is unfair, unequal. But there is also justice here in this world,” he said.
Even though Brandeis is familiar to him, Vaghar said he learns something new whenever he returns to campus. During this visit, a conversation with a writer for the Brandeis International Journal, which was established after he graduated, prompted him to consider sponsoring new initiatives to incorporate student journalism at MCN.
“A lot of student organizations struggle to tell their story; journalists are great at telling stories. So I think there’s an opportunity that I got right out of this meeting,” Vaghar said.
Keeping in mind that every college has something new to contribute, Vaghar has made a commitment to every Millennium Campus — every university that adopts the MCN model — to visit its campus at least once and engage with students.
“The opportunity to hear their challenges with student organizing, trying to address those and learn new ideas ... that we can take back to apply to our global network — that’s a win-win-win,” he said.
Vaghar also highlighted the role of students in bringing about lasting societal improvement. “If we’re an institution committed to social justice, how do we ensure that that ethos … becomes realized right here in Brandeis so we can do work in Waltham and Boston and halfway around the world?” he asked. “I think that’s a question students have a major responsibility to help address and answer.”